On the whole, I am not someone who finds the routine use of labels helpful. However, in the case of Parental Alienation, I strongly believe the failure to use this label in the UK has perpetuated a lack of understanding and helplessness in those that work in this area. This helplessness parallels the experience of the 54 mothers and fathers who took part in my recent research study. For these parents, the “Parental Alienation” label enabled them to begin to make sense of their experience through accessing the large volume of literature and, more limited, peer support available. Yet despite this understanding, their sense of powerlessness was exacerbated by their encounters with the courts, Cafcass, social care services and legal professionals.
In my clinical and consultancy work, I continue to hear from the majority of parents, and many solicitors, that raising parental alienation as a concept is a non-starter. In the process of preparing my research manuscripts for publication, I found it necessary to seek some clarity on the official position regarding parental alienation.
Despite recent versions of the Cafcass Operating Framework making clear reference to parental alienation (Cafcass, 2012, 2014) there seems to be a refusal to use the term itself in communications. In a recent personal communication to Cafcass I stated that I was currently preparing my manuscripts for submission and “I require clarification of the Cafcass position on Parental Alienation in order that I can accurately convey it in the article.” Their response contained no inclusion of Parental Alienation as a term; they repeatedly refer to “implacable hostility”.
Cafcass does understand and recognise the potential for implacable hostility by a party in high conflict private law cases. Our practitioners are aware of the potential for children to be influenced by parental views and will remain live to this issue throughout the progress of a case. (Cafcass, 2015)
CAFCASS Cymru, a separate organisation under the auspices of the Welsh Assembly stated that:
… the position of CAFCASS Cymru is that parental alienation is not recognised as a syndrome by UK medical, academic or legal sectors. However we recognise that sadly some parents … do attempt to influence their children. Emotional harm to a child can occur when a parent attempts to alienate a child from the other parent following separation. (CAFCASS Cymru, 2015)
In direct contradiction to the CAFCASS Cymru statement, Resolution, the association for family lawyers, refers to “Parental Alienation Syndrome” in a leaflet for parents (Resolution, 2008). However in the last few weeks, they have removed “Parental Alienation Syndrome” from their web-site, referring to “Hostile Aggressive Parenting”.
With such muddying of the waters, is it any wonder that so many families and children fail to receive the support and intervention needed to enable them to navigate the difficult path through conflicted family breakdown?
This lack of common reference and understanding suggests a failure to grasp the complexity of parental alienation. It is not a single factor phenomenon in which one parent alone acts to deliberately alienate a child from the other, except in extreme and severe cases. It is a complex issue of interpersonal and systemic dynamics, developmental processes, personality traits, individual characteristics and contextual and environmental factors which can lead to the rejection of a loving, caring parent and a life marred by psychological distress and relationship difficulties.